Here is a Russian icon from the Annunciation Cathedral in Solvuichegodsk/Solvychegodsk:

It depicts the “Fool for Christ’s Sake” Isidor/Isidore of Rostov.

Isidore is said to have been of Slavic stock and a wealthy family, and to have lived first in Brandenburg, in the eastern part of Germany once known as Prussia.  He at some time converted to Russian Orthodoxy, and left Prussia for Russia.  There he wandered about a bit, then decided on the city of Rostov, where he set himself up as a “Holy Fool” — that peculiar category of Eastern Orthodox piety.  Holy fools live in extreme poverty, and above all pretend to be crazy, supposedly to avoid the sin of pride and to live lives of humility while they are ridiculed and scorned by the public.  Oddly enough, it never seems to have occurred to them that behaving like a lunatic is much more likely to draw ongoing public attention than just living a quiet and pious life.  And of course it was never quite certain where the line between pretending to be crazy and actually being crazy was to be drawn.

In any case, Isidore built himself a crude hut in the middle of a swampy pool, and there he took took up residence.

Of course the usual miracle stories accompany him.  The most prominent of them relates that a Rostov merchant was at sea in a terrible storm, and the ship was in danger of breaking apart.  The sailors, in imitation of the story of Jonah in the Old Testament, decided that this misfortune must be the result of having a person very displeasing to God on board, and as in the tale of Jonah, they “cast lots” to decide who it was.

The man found responsible was the Rostov merchant.  They tossed him into the sea, along with a wooden plank.  The merchant was in great distress.  Just then the Holy Fool Isidore came walking across the water to the merchant, who recognized him and began to plead for his help.  Isidore put the merchant on the wooden plank, and it floated after the ship (which obviously was saved), catching up with it.  Soon the merchant found himself back on board.  The sailors who had thrown him into the sea saw this as a miracle, but the merchant, following the command of Isidore, would not reveal that the Holy Fool had appeared and saved him.

There are of course more miracle stories associated with Isidor, who died on May 14, 1474.

If we look at the  title inscription, we can see that it identifies him as:

“Holy Righteous Isidore of Rostov”

The Agios at the beginning is just the borrowed Greek word Hagios, meaning “holy/saint.”

If you look at the right hand of Isidore as he looks up toward Mary and Jesus in heaven, you can see that the fingers very obviously form the blessing sign characteristic of the Old Believers.  That is not surprising, given that the icon shown dates to the first half of the 17th century.


I have discussed icons of this fellow in some detail previously, so he should be very familiar to you:

(Courtesy of

He is of course Ioann Predtecha — John the Forerunner, better known in the West as John the Baptist.  Often he holds a vessel containing the child Jesus, represented as the Eucharistic “Lamb.”  But in this Russian example the vessel contains his own head, symbolizing his martyrdom under Herod

You know all that if you are a long-time reader here — so why am I talking about John again?  Because June 24th is the commemoration of his birth.  And that is roughly at the time of the Summer Solstice — Midsummer’s Day (it happens on June 20th this year).  And Midsummer is significant because in pre-Christian Russia, the Solstice was the time to celebrate the god Kupalo — who manifested the fertility of summer.

I mentioned that John’s name in Church Slavic is Ioann, but in ordinary Russian it becomes Ivan.  And because the Church did not like the idea of people celebrating Kupalo, they wanted them instead to celebrate John — Ivan.  The masses, however, did not wish to give up their traditional celebration, so a kind of compromise took place.  That is why at the time of Midsummer, there is a Russian celebration called Ivan Kupalo, pronounced Ee-vahn Koo-pahl-ah — combining the name of John the Baptist and that of the ancient Slavic fertility god.

Traditions vary somewhat from place to place, but the night before Ivan Kupalo was often a time when unmarried young women would go into the forest — often casually followed by young men, in keeping with the fertility aspects of the festival.  There were rituals to decide bonding or separation, such as the maidens floating wreaths on ponds or rivers, and young men trying to retrieve the wreaths of girls they favored.  Also there was much bathing in water, and jumping of bonfires by couples, as well as other traditional practices.  The fire represents the sun, as well as purification.

Ivan Kupalo was considered the ideal time to gather medicinal herbs, which were believed to be at their most potent, and there was also the notion that on the night preceding Ivan Kupalo, ferns would bloom.  If one were lucky enough to find such a magical fern flower, one’s success in life would be certain.  The catch, of course, is that in today’s world we know that scientifically, ferns simply do not bloom, whether on Ivan Kupalo or at any other time — so it is just a folk belief.

There is some difference in the time of celebrating Ivan Kupalo in modern Russia, depending on whether one is a traditionalist emphasizing the non-Christian “nature” aspects of the holiday, or whether one follows the preference of the Russian Orthodox Church.  The “naturalists” celebrate it in June (usually June 23-24), which is closer to the Summer Solstice.  But the more “Orthodox” tend to celebrate it on July 7th, due to the difference between the Gregorian and Julian calendars.



Just a “housekeeping” note.

I want to let readers here whose first language is not English know that I have added a Google Translation function on the right side of the page.  That way readers can get an approximate translation of my postings in their preferred languages.  Google Translate is not at all perfect, but it is a big improvement over nothing.


(Image by Frits Ahlenfeldt on Public Domain Pictures Net)





Dear ICONS AND THEIR INTERPRETATION subscribers and visitors —

I have been writing on this WordPress site for many years now.  When it began — and for years afterward — it was wonderfully free of advertising.  Recently a great many distasteful ads — which I have not chosen and do not benefit from in any way — have been appearing on my site due to a change in WordPress policy.  I find this so strongly objectionable that, though my blog has been without monetary cost to me all these years, I have decided to pay to “upgrade” my site and thus make it again free of such advertising.  My site has never had commercial intent, and I want to keep it that way for readers as long as I am writing here.

I have made the same change on my Hokku site.

I am looking forward to my readers once more  being able to come to my sites without any bother from distracting, undesirable, and irrelevant advertising.